The five areas where I can’t afford to be low-maintenance.

The five areas where I can’t afford to be low-maintenance.

I recently read Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story. It was an obligation read—I picked it up because I felt like I “should”—and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and how genuinely useful it was.

Harris’s journey began when he had a panic attack on live television. Harris, an ABC news anchor, was filling in on Good Morning America when, in his words, he was “overtaken by a massive, irresistible blast of fear.” He couldn’t finish the broadcast.

His doctor quickly identified the cause: drug use. After several years covering wars in Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, and Iraq, Harris became depressed, and began to self-medicate with cocaine and ecstasy. The drugs boosted the level of adrenaline in his brain, upping the odds of a panic attack. But when he quit using drugs, the side effects lingered. He spent years investigating—personally and professionally—his own mindlessness, exploring the changes he needed to make in his life to be healthier and happier. In 10% Happier, he tells the whole story.

thoroughbred horse

Harris made an offhand comment on page 98 that really clicked for me. He was recounting a conversation with his doctor, in which his doctor told him to treat himself like a thoroughbred: Harris needed to “not only refrain from drugs but also engage in careful mental and physical upkeep in order to stay balanced.”

This idea is not new to me. I often reference the “orchid child” analogy to describe one of my own kids. (Dandelions can thrive almost anywhere, but orchids require a very specific environment to bloom.) The concept is similar.

The idea isn’t new, but I never thought it applied to me. However, like Harris, I need careful mental and physical upkeep in order to stay balanced. And like Harris, I started my own journey when my anxiety switch was flipped on 9/11. (Anxiety isn’t at the heart of my struggle, like it was for Harris, but when I don’t take decent care of myself, I’m much more vulnerably to anxiety, and at that point it can quickly turn into a big deal.)

My circumstances weren’t nearly as dramatic as his, and yet—I used to pride myself on being pretty low-maintenance, and now I’m just not. At least not in these areas, where I require the thoroughbred (or orchid) treatment:

1. Food. Since I got pregnant for the first time, I’ve been prone to hypoglycemia. As long as I eat the foods that are right for me, when I’m supposed to eat them, and avoid the stuff that makes me feel like crap, I’m fine. But I can’t eat just anything without suffering the consequences.

2. Caffeine. I adore coffee, but in a cruel twist of fate, my caffeine tolerance vanished overnight several years ago. Now caffeine makes me feel panicky.

3. Sleep. I need a minimum 7.5 hours every night. Being short of sleep makes me physically and emotionally vulnerable, and sometimes makes me feel crazy. (What day is it? What city am I in?) I don’t always get it, and when I don’t I need to catch up fast: I slept a blissful ten hours in my own bed last night because I didn’t sleep enough, or well, last weekend.

4. Mental space. I need time alone to recharge and quiet time to let my thoughts spin out.

5. Meditation. I wouldn’t have put this on the list a month ago. I did this back in 2001-02 to get a grip again when my 9/11 recovery felt more like a chronic illness than a lingering scar. When I started to get better, I dropped the habit. But last month my therapist recommended that I take it up again right after I finished Harris’s book, in which he makes a strong case for meditation. I believe in signs, so I began again, this time using the Headspace app. I’d rather fall out of bed and do something else first thing, but lately I’m needing this morning tune-up for the mind.

I’d like to be an easy to please girl—but when it comes to these five areas, I can’t afford to be low maintenance.

Do you have areas in your life where YOU can’t be low maintenance? I’d love to hear your thoughts on those, and if you resonate with the thoroughbred or orchid analogies, in comments.

5 areas where I can't afford to be low maintenance

Books mentioned in this post:

Creative Commons Phalaenopsis Orchid by Don Urban is licensed under CC by 2.0.

65 comments

  1. Sara K. says:

    Sleep is definitely one for me. I regularly get 8 to 8.5 hours of sleep a night. Whenever I get less (like last night) I am really dragging. I hope to get a good night’s rest tonight to bounce back from it!

  2. beth says:

    Sleep is a huge one for me. I know I need a minimum of 8 hours, and wouldn’t complain about more! Food and physical activity are others that are becoming increasingly non-negotiable. Anne, I am curious- as a mom of four, how do you manage getting enough sleep? I’m not a mom yet, and but knowing this is a specific vulnerability of mind scares me a bit in anticipation of having kids.

    • Anne says:

      It’s funny you should ask, because Will and I have noticed how our own routines around sleep have shifted dramatically in the past year, because our children’s sleep schedules have shifted. (They don’t need to go to bed at 7pm now like they did just a year or two ago.)

      About sleeping well as a mom of four: my firstborn didn’t sleep through the night till he was five. Looking back, I’m not sure how I didn’t lose my mind. (Naps?)

      But the recent years have been fine. In my head, I know that I need to be winding down at 9 and turn the lights off at ten. It’s not a firm appointment, but it is a definite routine. A few years ago, I used to get a lot of computer work done after the kids went to bed. These days, I don’t usually touch the computer after dinner. We’ve had seasons (even this summer) where one kid won’t be sleeping particularly well, and that does mess with our sleep, but that hasn’t lasted more than a few weeks.

  3. Kayte says:

    Thanks for mentioning the Headspace app. I’ve been using guided meditation videos on YouTube for a while now,and never thought about checking for an app. Headspace is genius!

  4. Ashley says:

    I’ve finally accepted that I’m really vulnerable to anxiety under certain conditions. During those times, I absolutely have to focus on treating myself with care, which is much easier said than done. Right now, I have a 1-year-old who isn’t sleeping well and my mental health is suffering, big time. I work outside the home, so napping isn’t an option. By the time I pick up the baby from daycare and my son from school, I am just DONE but I have to keep on going. (My husband does help, but I wake up to every cry even if he is the one that gets up.) This will pass, right?

  5. Hannah says:

    Your description of yourself fits me to a ‘T’ in almost every way. Like others here, I exercise in addition to trying to eat and sleep well–and get some time alone to think. I’d say I substitute meditation with intentional prayer. There is nothing but NOTHING that has more of an impact on my day than that, for sure.

  6. Katia says:

    Anne, I agree with you on all the points and like Kayris, I would add exercise to the mix. I need to move first thing in the morning, so I get up before everyone else in order to get my 30 to 60 minutes of cardio/weights/pilates/yoga. I sit at work for the majority of the day, so movement first thing in the morning is essential to my wellbeing. I have also been walking at lunch, which gives me energy for the afternoon.

  7. liz n. says:

    -I absolutely must have alone time on a regular basis. Without it, I become grumbly, pessimistic, and snap at people for the slightest thing. I am never shy about letting people know it’s time to leave me be for awhile, and those closest to me don’t even need to be told. They’re used to it and understand it.

    -Physical exercise: I’ve been very physically active my whole life, and if I don’t get in a run, a bike ride, a workout, some time at the barre, etc., several times a week, I feel run-down, creaky, fatigued. I do yoga every morning, no matter what.

    -Eating well: during part of our kitchen remodel, the power was off for two days, and we ate fast food for six meals in a row. I usually eat fast food two or three times a YEAR, and my body went into a slump. I crave fresh veg from the garden and homemade soups and foods that taste like themselves.

    -Taking care of elderly parents: They will often say, “Oh, this is okay,” or “Oh, don’t go to the trouble,” but no. Old folks fall down. They forget which pills to take. They tire easily. They don’t want to put in their teeth or hearing aids. They don’t want you to “do too much for them.” It is not possible to “do too much for them.”

  8. Chrissy says:

    Love this list. <3 I'm actually very high maintenance in health, not because I want to but rather because I have to. With chronic asthma, depression, PTSD and anxiety, I have to keep my health in order.

    Sleeping 9 hours a night is a must for me. Also my nightly routine is a must wherever I am. I start it off by drinking a cup of calming tea before bed (sleepytime), followed by reading a book for a few chapters and then my nightly affirmations. Also, I'm very strictly no caffeine (which sucks because I miss green tea) and I eat whole food plant based vegan. I've found that for me (everyone is different) when I eat dairy by accident or eat vegan junk food, my body goes haywire (asthma acts up, anxiety starts up again, it's a mess). But, if I stay with my green smoothies (kale and flax mixed with almond milk and berries) and normal eating, I'm pretty much okay.

    Lastly, I always wear my mala bracelet. Whenever I start to have a panic attack in public, I can hold each bead in my hand and slowly repeat an affirmation. After going through all the beads, I'm usually a lot calmer.

  9. Things that quickly come to mind for me are: sleep, nature, movement (my restless leg acts up if I don’t wear them out a little), clutter free spaces/order and quiet time, not necessarily alone but I need quiet time.

  10. Krista says:

    Food is a huge one for me as well. I am sensitive to foods and sugar balance. I am gluten intolerant and also avoid soy and peanuts because they don’t make me feel good. I am picky about other foods, too…trying to eat grass fed meat, pasture raised eggs, and foods free of corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. I have to snack throughout the day, too.

    Another issue of mine is sleep. I’ve always needed lots of sleep –initially I needed 10 hours. Now I get probably 8-9 hours and feel good.

    While I love getting out of the house and socializing, I also am an introvert and need to recooperate afterwards, reading, stay-at-home time.

    Health and wellness are important to me. I feel best when I eat balanced, exercise often, stay active, and rest.

  11. Naomi says:

    Oh wow, I’ve never heard anyone else use the word “panicky”, but I use it too. And caffeine is one of the triggers that makes me panicky. I had a bout with panic attacks during an extremely stressful period of life and that’s when I lost my tolerance to caffeine (and driving in traffic!).

  12. Kelty says:

    Great points. I’ve actually been thinking about this topic lately but more in terms of resilience going down as I get older. I’ve had a bout of sleeplessness lately and it’s been tough to recover from, just making everything harder to cope with. It made me think about the all nighters I used to pull in college and how I’d bounce back in a few days. But that was my 18-22 year old self and my 36 year old self would take weeks to recover from that. Same goes for alcohol effects and tolerance and foods and so on (even when I’m in denial on some of these!) In fact, there are probably some other things in this category that I just don’t want to own up to yet. I guess part of getting older and wiser is just knowing your limits and knowing how to keep your “machine” running smoothly.

    I’ll add “Some Adult Conversation” to the list for me. As an extroverted work-at-home Mom, if I go too many days without some sort of adult face to face time, I slowly become unable to speak in full sentences!

  13. Anne says:

    I resonate with much of what you wrote. I feel high maintenance in many ways, and I struggle to accept that in myself. I had not heard of the orchid analogy, that’s helpful. If I was an orchid as a child, I must’ve had enough outlets (alone time/reading) to handle it.

  14. Pam says:

    It’s yoga for me. I really need at least 20 minutes five days a week or my shoulder starts acting up and then I get all miserable or cranky. Sleep is my other “must have.” I read that book earlier in the year and also was surprised at how much I liked it. I’ve tried meditating on and off and plan on spending the month of November actively pursuing and investigating it – just in time for the busy holiday season!

  15. Danae says:

    Besides ones already mentioned like sleep, exercise and daily quiet time, I find that a tidy home greatly contributes to my sense of inner calm. I’m not talking about passing the white glove test, but daily upkeep like making the beds, clear kitchen and bathroom counters, laundry in hampers not on the floor. I don’t love cleaning but I’ve implemented these into the rhythm of my week because clutter increases my stress level.

  16. Missy G. says:

    I was discussing a similar concept with my counselor last week. He asked me how I dealt with stress and anxiety, and I could easily respond that I read and sleep. Reading allows me to take a step back and to get outside of my own head. Sleeping gives me the ability to wake up and approach each day as a NEW day. I ddon’t carry concerns or grudges from one day to the next.

  17. Grace says:

    It’s so great that you have this self awareness to know what you need and how. While I was reading your post it reminded me of Brene Brown in Rising Strong talking about the shame she had around not being considered easy going or flexible. Then she came to realize that the most compassionate people, and those who were living wholeheartedly, were those who set boundaries and asked for what they needed. I would say exercise is one that I would add to my list.

  18. Debbie Sivertson says:

    Anne, would you please share the basics of your high protein, high fat and veggie diet (low sugar and low carb)!!! I’ve always felt better eating this way (some hypoglycemia too) and my doctor recently surprised me by now saying saturated fats are ok! (No trans fat or fast food). Thanks!!!

  19. Jamie says:

    I’m not sure why it’s so hard for me to admit, but: me too. I kind of kept it together until kids (or I was living in sweet denial and parenting brought it all out). I’ve never been a great sleeper, but I need it. With food and caffeine I still have one foot in denial camp. But I’m getting away with less and less in those areas. Exercise is crucial as is quality relational time/verbal processing with important people in my life. And prayer and His Word. I’m such a mess without it. Thanks for these thoughts.

  20. Jesssica says:

    I just finished this audio book and was surprised by how funny it was. I was glad I listened to it because I really appreciated the “news anchor voice” but many times I wished I had been reading it because I wanted to take notes.

    I’m a big fan of the Headspace App and really appreciated all of the science and debunking of meditation discussed in the book.

  21. Kendra says:

    You and Gretchen Rubin are such great reminders to me of self-care (I love that she is a “sleep zealot”.) I admire those who respect their own needs and have high standards in the departments that matter to them. I have been beginning to question if “low maintenance” is something I even care that much about anymore. It seems more like a benefit to others or maybe procrastination on my part (which usually comes back to bite me). I appreciate that you post about it fairly often.
    It’s funny, I have not read Dan Harris’ book yet because the question that keeps nagging me is “Why only 10% happier? I will add it to my TBR list.
    Also, I’d love to hear more about the “orchid child” analogy. I’ve not heard of it before.

  22. KR says:

    I loved this book. A very realistic approach to self care and the imperfect road to self acceptance many of us are on.

    Two things I must do, although there are many more that I should: Update my calendar and menu planner. If I don’t, I am lost, stressed and eating really bad food all week. Second is getting time in nature. It soothes me, inspires me and sometimes gives me vitamin D (New England) which helps me sleep.

  23. Jane says:

    (first time commenter – I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and love it!)

    For me, I suffer from anxiety pretty badly. It’s under control now, and I have to take steps to ensure it stays that way. So – Exercise is important. I find I need to have a 20 – 30 minute walk each day. Watching what I eat, so soft drinks are bad for me because I find I can get more anxious after drinking them. I find as long as I stay away from junk, I feel good. I also always carry snacks with me (crackers & roasted chickpeas).

    I also suffer from migraines and find if I’m on the verge of having one, I need to take my migraine tablet, and sleep. Sometimes I don’t if I’m out already and will just try and suffer through the outing, until I can get home. But I’m working on paying attention to signs, and realising I need to go and have a nap, and take my tablet.

  24. St harris says:

    Most of these, and….
    Music.
    High energy music in the morning to connect my brain and body, and gentle classical or Jazz in evenings. Some opera every week for soul- filling inspiration to live an amazing life.

  25. Leigh Kramer says:

    I’m high maintenance when it comes to sleep. I’ve been on a sleep schedule since 2007 and if I don’t adhere to it, my insomnia can return with a vengeance. I also find I need to stay home at least every other night, if not more, or I can feel overwhelmed. There are exceptions to this, depending on the activity, people, or event, and how much energy they require. But I feel more balanced when I have enough downtime to process, read, and do whatever else I need to do around the house.

  26. Meg says:

    I love this post SO much! You have such a great way of writing about the things we all think about but rarely discuss! And, you always remind ME that self care is important and I need to do a better job at it! Your post for today (9/24) is also one of my favorites – things getting you through life right now. Your blog is one of the few I read every single day! Thank you 🙂

  27. Amy says:

    Slowly over the years I’ve winnowed out several of my must-haves. For example, I used to think that time alone was key to my mental health, but when I found myself with a extroverted husband and 6 kids, I kind of got over that. I still feel better if I can get some time alone every day, though, so I give up a little sleep in the early morning to find it. I used to think that I’d go crazy if I couldn’t get out for a run every day, but then I hurt my ankle, then my knee, and now am happy with a 15-min walk and/or a short workout every day. My point is: the must-haves do change with time. There are some upsides to aging. 😉

  28. Sleep is a huge one for me. For the last nine or 10 years I’ve been lucky to get more than 6 and a half continuous hours per night. Usually less. Usually in shifts. It’s had a huge toll on my well-being and my weight especially. Looking for quick energy to get me through the day has resulted in an additional 20+ kgs (50ish pounds), mostly around my middle.

    I miss feeling fully rested and alert. And, I’ve tried everything except drugs.

    When you’re constantly sleep deprived, it’s easy to see why it’s an effective way to mentally break a person. Crazy’ is an easy place to find when you’re sleep deprived!

  29. MaryRuth says:

    I have 4/5 of the same areas as you! I love this post. I need my books instead of meditation but I take those on the treadmill so people think it is actually gym-time I need. I also love your flower-child analogies. I assume mine are dandelions but my middle two are probably more orchids. You are giving me something to think about! Thanks!

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  31. Amanda A says:

    I don’t know how anyone can sleep so long! haha. I get about 3 hours a night. Sometimes all at once but usually I wake up a lot during. I’ve tried to get more sleep. Can’t. Tried sleeping pills. Didn’t work. Tried exercise. That didn’t work. Actually caused me to sleep less

  32. Becca says:

    Anne,
    Thank you so much for providing the link to this post from last year. Your “orchid child” analogy totally hit the nail on the head for me. I definitely identify with being a “low maintenance” type of person. That being said, there are certain things I need in order to make me grow. Meditation is something I’ve been thinking I needed to add back into my day.

  33. Oh my gosh – the exact same thing happened to me with caffeine! I’m so glad to hear I wasn’t completely making it up in my head. I love coffee…and after nursing my second child I tried to reintegrate it into my day. But I felt jittery and had insomnia…so just cut it out completely. Recently, I asked for decaf at Starbucks and I’m pretty sure the barista gave me a regular b/c my heart was racing all day long and I had a terrible night sleep.

    You and I seem to be high maintenance in many of the same ways – particularly sleep, food, caffeine, and mental space 🙂 I’d also add exercise to my list.

  34. Sarah says:

    Would you recommend this book to a young teenager who needs to learn the importance of self-care? I’m not squeamish about the mention of drug abuse as long as it’s talked about sensibly. It seems like the overarching message of the book could be beneficial.

    • Anne says:

      Maybe? He’s very frank about why he turned to drugs for self-medicating, and how that had detrimental effects on his health, career, and relationships. If I were going to pass this one off to my own young teen, I’d give it a quick skim first with a younger audience in mind, since that wasn’t at all the lens I was reading it through the first time.

  35. Mary Ann says:

    I just want to say thank you for sharing your very personal struggles with anxiety and the resources that were useful to you along the way. Sharing something that personal is a very brace thing to do. I have a daughter who was stricken with anxiety in middle school which then lead to depression when we were unable to find the right help for her. This all occurred several years ago and we have learned a lot since then. She is now a thriving college student, but there were many bumps along the way. She too is an orchid and many of the same routines apply – sleep, good food at regular intervals, a balance of social and quiet time, and some form of creative expression, hers happens to be poetry. Knowing and understanding that she is an INFJ has also helped tremendously.

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